Reflections on Cuba

The following is Part I of an edited and enhanced version of an interview conducted by RICK SMITH (radio host of “United for Progress,” a 100% pro-labor and unapologetically progressive voice, heard on WHYL News Talk Radio (960 AM), Carlisle, PA) with Dr. Doug Morris, College of Education and Technology, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, NM.

Q: First, can you tell us why you were in Cuba?

I should first say that I am not an expert on Cuba but I do have research interests in progressive forms of pedagogy and a hope and belief that we can organize ourselves differently in society, more justly, more equitably, and more democratically. Cuba has had great pedagogical successes in formal and informal education and they are carrying out an experiment in alternative politics and economics that places people above profits.

I was in Cuba as part of the 19th “Research Network in Cuba Conference” organized by the University of Havana and the US based “Radical Philosophers Association . I had not visited Cuba since 2002 and there are clear signs of improvement in Cuba. “The Research Network” includes a yearly gathering of philosophers, educators, cultural workers and students from Cuba and the United States who share research interests, theories and practices, visions, goals, plans, etc.

As part of the research we were able to visit and interact with researchers, scholars, and workers at the Latin American School of Medicine that is working to graduate 100,000 doctors from Latin America, Africa and the US over the next ten years dedicated to helping the poor in their home countries, the Pedagogical Institute which is home to the “Yes I Can” literacy program now operating in 19 countries, the Ophthamology Institute home of “Operation Miracle” that has now performed over 600,000 free eye operations to restore sight (the goal is six million operations), neighborhood health clinics, schools, etc.

One thing in common about all of these places is a deep sense of solidarity, social responsibility, compassion, and internationalism (captured in the oft-seen slogan “Homeland is Humanity”) in the pedagogical process. The head of the School of Medicine noted that “people here are trained both in the science of Medicine and the science of political consciousness. They learn that health is not only a matter of biology but also a matter of society. A healthful people require a healthful society.” This key dialectic between humans as both biological and social beings is a crucial component of Cuban pedagogy.

Another reason for visiting Cuba is to renew one’s inspiration and hope in human possibility.

Q: Are there some general impressions of Cuba you could share?

One thing is the striking billboards in Cuba. One sees no advertisements for cars, or beer, or diamonds, but one does see much about the accomplishments of the revolution, international solidarity, denunciation of US imperialism, the Cuban Five, the terrorist recently freed by the US, Luis Posada-Carriles, etc. One could do an interesting comparative study about the use of public space for sharing information in Cuba and the US. In Cuba, in general, public space remains public while in the US it is increasingly privatized. In the US over-consumption is emphasized, in Cuba solidarity and education is emphasized. In the US aggression is celebrated, in Cuba it is denounced. In Cuba health for all is celebrated, in the US the question is “how can we make money from your ill-health?” In Cuba they are trying to produce a healthful society for all, including free health-care, in the US we have produced a society that makes people sick and then we spend enormous amounts repairing the damage.

And, of course, one sees Ché’s image at multiple sites.

For example, regarding billboards, imagine a perplexed Statue of Liberty screaming “What barbarians! They have freed the terrorist!” To whom might this admonishment be directed? In this case, Lady Liberty’s image adorns a large and colorful billboard along the ocean-side Malecon in Havana, just across from, and facing, CIA headquarters in Cuba, a.k.a. “The US Interest Section.” The admonition refers not to al Qaeda terrorists, but to the long-time US backed thug and killer Luis Posada-Carrilles, who now walks freely on the streets of Miami. The Bush Administration is responsible for “freeing the terrorist” and the Cubans are rightly angry.

Freeing “the terrorist” is really a scandalous violation of international treaty agreements. The US refuses to extradite the man who publicly and proudly admits (along with co-terrorist Orlando Bosch) to carrying out years of terrorist attacks against Cuba, and he has been implicated in the infamous exploding of a Cuban airliner in 1976 that killed everyone on board, along with admitting to a series of 1997 bombing attacks on Havana hotels and restaurants in an attempt to undermine tourism during a period when Cuba relied on tourism to boost the economy.

In the US, since 1959 and the triumph of the Cuban revolution, terrorism of multiple sorts carried out against Cuba is not only permitted but encouraged, and, on the billboard, Lady Liberty is, like the rest of us should be, aghast at the horror of this vindictive and vicious US policy.

We might recall that after 9/11, George W. Bush “put the world on notice that we will hold any person or regime that harbors or supports terrorists as guilty of terrorism as the terrorists themselves.” We still await legal actions against those “guilty of terrorism” in the current US administration responsible for harboring terrorist Luis Posada-Carrilles, among others (not to mention the Administration’s other, and more heinous, crimes).

Much of old Havana is in a state of disrepair, but at the same time one sees much restoration under way, another sign of an improving economy. There are parts of Havana that remind one that Cuba is a poor country, but there are other parts that remind one that Cuba has achieved much with very little. Cuba is not a tropical paradise, but it is also not an infernal hell like Haiti right next door. There seemed to be more food on the table and more cars in the streets, both indications that the economy is improving (though not necessarily the air quality in Havana).

Q: What is the primary struggle in Cuba these days?

Though we met with many Cubans from different walks of life, but mainly academics, the visit to Cuba was short, two weeks, so one must be careful not to generalize. In my view, arguably the primary battle in Cuba now continues to be what they call “the battle of ideas,” i.e. how to maintain socialist consciousness and socialist commitment during this challenging historical period when Cuba is forced to interface more and more with global capitalism/neoliberalism in order to survive. In other words, how does a country carrying out a socialist experiment maintain and develop notions of and commitments to solidarity, mutual responsibility and collective work within a context of relative scarcity while at the same time global forces are increasingly present that promote a rapacious individualism and exacerbated consumption of frequently unnecessary, but tantalizing, products? In addition, there is the constant threat of US military force and that has material, as well as psychological and emotional, impacts on an entire population of people.

At the same time that there exists a US military threat and neoliberalism is attempting to claw its way into Cuba, the growing tide of leftism in Latin America (most evident in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, but growing in most other countries, including Mexico), along with US distractions elsewhere, a weakened US economy, and the newly constructed ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America), rooted in the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela, provide a form of protection and support for Cuba as well as emerging hopes that the sails of socialist possibilities will gain new and stronger winds in the coming years.

Additionally, Cuba’s revolutionary commitment to national dignity and sovereignty along with their revolutionary commitment to international solidarity is beginning to spread across Latin America and the world and that provides and earns them increasing levels of international respect, interest, acknowledgement, appreciativeness and support. All of that makes it more difficult for the US to overturn the revolution. We might also recall that the Cubans mobilized more than 1,500 doctors and aid workers experienced in hurricane relief to come to the US immediately after Katrina, but the Bush Administration stupidly and arrogantly refused their assistance.

Q: One often hears of human rights violations in Cuba. How does one respond?

First, we do not want to ignore human rights violations anywhere, especially human rights violations for which we are responsible. The US blockade against Cuba, now in its 47th year (official blockade 45th), is illegal. The latest vote on the US embargo in the United Nations was 184-4, essentially the whole world calling for an immediate end to the illegal US embargo. The US embargo is a major human rights and international law violation, and the US, voting essentially alone, voted to keep the illegal embargo. This vote, where basically the entire world says “end the embargo” and the US, against the world, says “what we say goes,” demonstrates how little the US is interested in democracy internationally. People around the world know these things. Sadly, internally many people in the US are unaware.

Cuba, since 1959, has been victimized by more terrorism than any other country (not in terms of victims but in terms of attacks), and virtually all of it comes from the US, either as officially sponsored state terror, for example, “Operation Mongoose” started under the Kennedy Administration after the failed US attack at the Bay of Pigs, or a sort of “we will look the other way” non-state terror organized by anti-Cuban revolution folks in Miami. Many of the people involved in that terror have links to the CIA. The US has carried out biological warfare against Cuba, for example, releasing dengue fever that killed several hundred people, mostly children, etc. There is a long list, much of it is covered in a book by William Blum “Killing Hope” that is highly recommended.

But, I suspect the question is pointing to the oft-noted, in the US, human rights violations perpetrated by the Cuban government, yes?

Q: Yes, of course, this is what we are constantly told. There is the impression that Cuba is a police state that governs through force, intimidation and coercion.

Well, yes, in the United States one hears much about Cuban human rights violations, but it is difficult to believe that the US has any real or principled concern for human rights anywhere, other than the “right” to maximize profits and power for the select few. For example, a report came out recently noting that more than one million people have now been killed in Iraq as a consequence of the US aggression and occupation. That figure does not take into account those who were killed by the 12 years of US sanctions and bombings in the years 1991-2003. Estimates of people killed during that period run as high as a million people, with roughly 500,000 of them young children. It is about that figure that US Secretary of State Madeline Albright said “the price [of killing 500,000 children] is worth it.” In addition, a significant portion of the Iraqi population is without adequate food or drinkable water or employment. Children in Iraq are among the most traumatized in the world. There are roughly 2 million internally displaced people and two million who have been forced to flee the country. Hospitals are barely working and are undersupplied. Electricity is hard to find on a regular basis. There is rampant killing, torture, kidnapping, abuse, bombing, etc. How is the US demonstrating its concerns for these major human rights violations? The US continues to participate in carrying out the violations. I mention all of this to suggest that US concerns for human rights are at best incidental and US condemnations of Cuba for human rights violations must be looked on with suspicion.

As to Cuba, under the revolution, Cuba has no history of death squads or torture squads, no mass imprisonment, mass kidnapping, and no mass repression. Some people who are referred to in the US as “dissidents” and imprisoned in Cuba would be called “terrorists” if they were operating in the US or in a US client state. In general, those “terrorists” are people who work for the US, are funded through the US Interest Section in Havana (basically CIA headquarters in Cuba), or they are funded by anti-revolution groups in Miami that often have connections to the CIA and thus carry out policies supported by US power. Those people are trying to destroy the Cuban socialist experiment and they are backed by real power, i.e. US power.

There are no fair analogies in the real world regarding power relationships so one must invent them that match the US/Cuba power relationship. For example, suppose there was a SUPERPOWER in the world, call it “SUPERPOWER X” that had the same degree of power over the US that the US has over Cuba, and that SUPERPOWER X was hostile to the US, had carried out invasions, regular terror operations and maintained an illegal blockade against the US, was constantly propagandizing inside the US over radio and television all in attempts to destroy the US (and here we would also have to imagine that the US was attempting to carry out an experiment in people-first politics and economics), and then imagine there were people inside the US, working for, trained and funded by SUPERPOWER X in repeated attempts to destroy the (hypothetical in this case) US experiment in socialism? We would not call them “dissidents” we would call them “terrorists,” and one can imagine they would not be treated nicely, in fact, they would probably be executed for treason, or sent off to some Guantanamo-style gulag to be tortured. The US, I would suggest, despises Cuba not because of human rights violations in Cuba but because in Cuba they respect human rights the US does not consider as valid rights: health care, food, education, cultural expression, work, housing, sustainability of the environment, etc.

Q: And what about freedom of speech? We are told there is no freedom of speech in Cuba; we are told that people are cowering in corners afraid to say anything lest they be hauled off to prison?

That is surely a caricature. We had plenty of conversations with people in various settings and they seemed perfectly willing and free to be critical. One senses, however, a certain pride in the revolution that could make people somewhat reluctant to be overly critically in the face of people from the US. Remember, the US is trying to destroy the revolution. Furthermore, that pride, I think, is linked to a sense of responsibility not just to the revolution inside Cuba but for the example that Cuba might provide for the rest of the world, i.e. Cuba offers a working example that demonstrates how people can organize society differently and direct it toward a people-first mobilization that does not place profits above human well-being. This is linked to the strong sense of international solidarity one witnesses in Cuba’s internationalized literacy and medical programs that really are unmatched and unprecedented.

There were some arguments in Cuba among some on the US delegation around freedom of speech in Cuba, and of course one would want to support more freedom of speech everywhere, including Cuba. But, as one of the Cuban philosophers told us, “we are not carrying out a socialist experiment on the moon!” A few from the US intimated “the US has a free press as evidenced by the Bill Moyers program and ‘NOW’ on PBS, ‘Air America’ radio, ‘The Nation’ magazine, etc.” I think they are missing a crucial point. While it is true those somewhat oppositional forms exist in the US, they are not a threat to power because they are not backed by any significant power that is a threat to real power in the US, i.e. corporate power. If any of these programs became a real threat to power one suspects they would quickly disappear.

In Cuba the situation is different. So called “oppositional literature” or “oppositional speech” in Cuba IS frequently backed by significant power, in fact, it is backed by the most powerful force in history, a combination of US military, economic and political power, and it is well known that the US is virulently hostile to Cuba. Because of that Cuba must, I think, operate with a greater degree of care and suspicion in determining what should and what should not be disseminated or permitted. This is not an attempt to justify repression of speech, but an attempt to explain it in the current circumstances. There is Fidel’s statement “Criticism within the revolution, yes; criticism against the revolution, no.” Cuba does not want to return to the virtual slave-state existence it had before the 1959 triumph of the revolution.
That Cuba has survived is a bit of a miracle, and they continue their struggle, under difficult conditions. They appear to be committed to extending what is already a fairly substantial degree of participatory democracy, both formally through the State and informally through participation in popular organizations and federations.

Because of the US blockade and the collapse of the Soviet trading block the Cuban economy is still operating within what they call “The Special Economic Period,” a period of deprivation, severe at times, but they expect to achieve productive levels similar to “the good ol’ days” of 1989 (before the collapse of the Soviet bloc that supported the Cuban economy) sometime within the next two years. At the height of the Special Period the economy was down as much as 40% and caloric intake was down as much as 60% according to some reports. They survived by sharing the deprivation and mobilizing the collective will and intelligence to find ways to survive.

So, in spite of its many problems, some internal, many external, I think the world owes Cuba and the Cuban people a great debt of gratitude for not surrendering their struggle because in a world edging toward multiple catastrophes, both human and social, rooted in capitalism and militarism, Cuba offers a different model that provides both some hope and possibility that alternatives do exist and we can organize society in ways that place people above profits, cooperation above selfishness, and international solidarity above international aggression.

Q: What about Cuban nationalism? We often see photographs of tens of thousands of people at demonstrations?

Tens of thousands is probably an underestimate. Hundreds of thousands is more accurate. Nationalism is surely promoted. A strong sense of national defense is essential while living “beneath” the behemoth to the North.

Here I will speculate. In Cuba one hears or sees the slogan “Patria o Muerte,” (“Homeland or Death”). Some people in the US will say “Castro has trained a country of robots willing to die to protect his power.” One suspects that has very little to do with the slogan, and that is not to say Fidel is not respected for his contributions to the revolution, he is. When Cubans say “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”) it carries with it, I think, a number of meanings, and relevance beyond Cuba: (1) it suggests they will struggle to the death to protect the socialist experiment and national identity, their self-determination and their right to live free from colonial or imperial control, exploitation and domination; (2) if they lose the homeland it is not only a physical death but a cultural death along with the death of the experiment in socialism and a “people first” society, and thus a “spiritual” death, a crushing of hope, and the elimination of dreams; (3) (a bit more subtle, but perhaps even more important), there is a sense one gets from a number of Cubans, young and old, that the Cuban experiment may provide a model, both material and inspirational, theoretical and practical, ideological and pedagogical, of sorts for the very survival of Latin America in the face of US hegemony, and also for the survival of the rest of the world in the face of neoliberalism and militarism. This is not rooted in any sense of Cuban arrogance (just the opposite), but out of an understanding that the rapacious, brutal and destructive nature of a “produce and expand in order to profit and survive” economy accompanied by a commitment to military aggression portends ultimate doom for humanity, preceded by all too much suffering, despair and misery. So yes, there is a strong sense of being part of something larger than the self in Cuba, it is both nationalist and internationalist, both local and global.

One might sum it up by saying that if the values on which socialism is based, i.e. solidarity, love, respect, humanitarianism, equality, reason, freedom, substantive democracy, and peace, are crushed; then, there is a sense of spiritual death, followed soon by physical annihilation. So, in a phrase, “homeland or death,” i.e. “patria o muerte,” also carries with it the notion “socialismo o muerte!”